Posts Tagged ‘Alan Moore’

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (and some Recent History of Comics in America)

October 3, 2008

I have followed Neil Gaiman’s career since the early nineties when he recreated the obscure DC-comics character, the Sandman, into a hero for the Goth-crowd of all ages and both sexes and subsequently managed to bring what was a rather complex mythological story into the mainstream. He played an important part in getting girls into comics, as the world of the Sandman was almost void of spandexclad heroes of any kind – or pneumatically enhanced women. While more cerebral than the average comic, the Sandman still contained a sufficient sense of adventure and mystery to appeal to boys, or rather young men well versed in the language of comics. Of course, I’m simplifying.

As the Sandman-series hit its stride, DC decided to separate some of their comics from the DC-main staple and release them under the new Vertigo-imprint, a sub-division of DC specializing in “quality comics for mature readers”. Gaiman, together with what DC at the time considered “respected” writers of slightly off-beat comics, such as Peter Milligan (Shade, the Changing Man), Grant Morrison (Doom Patrol, Animal Man), ensured that the new imprint was an unmitigated success. But while the others certainly delivered eccentric comics with an artistic quality above the ordinary, it was clearly Gaiman who was the superstar in terms of fandom and sales.

(I can parenthetically remark that the godfather of this “British wave” in the American comics industry was Alan Moore, who had shown the adult face of comics in America with his take on Swamp Thing and – of course – Watchmen. But after DC had “fucked him over” one time too many, he at this stage refused to have anything to do with the company).

It was thus seemingly a brave move by DC to accommodate Gaiman’s wishes when he announced he had come to the end of his Sandman-saga. The “normal” course would have been to leave the title in other hands, but DC agreed to stop the flagship title of Vertigo, even while some feared it could spell the end for the “alternative” imprint. On the other hand, they probably had every interest in remaining on good terms with Gaiman, and seeing the debacle they’d been engaged in with Alan Moore, they probably decided they couldn’t well afford to anger their other superstar.

I think Gaiman’s work in the comics industry has been rather scattershot since his Sandman-days. While he wrote some brilliant graphic novels (all with regular collaborator Dave McKean), such as Signal to Noise, Mr. Punch and Violent Cases before or during his Sandman-run, the material he’s been working on since has been less than stellar (a graphic novel starring Alice Cooper, of all things), including his brief return to the Sandman mythology in some stand-alone issues. As a result I gradually lost interest in Gaiman, feeling he kind of felt he had told the stories he had wanted to tell within the medium and that this explained why his plots felt a bit tired and worn in his later works.

Mr. Punch

Mr. Punch

I knew a bit of his literary output outside comics before picking up a copy of American Gods, a book he wrote back in 2001. I’ve read a short story collection, Angels & Visitations, which contained, as I recall, one very good story (Murder Mysteries), some merely OK and some bland. I also have skimmed his Stardust (with Charles Vess) which they made into an entertaining little film, Mirrormask (the film version not quite as entertaining), and Neverwhere (made into a low budget TV-series with some decent bits, or so they tell me). So it wasn’t with very high hopes I came to American Gods, and I actually only bought it because it was on sale for about $5.
I must say, however, that I was pleasantly surprised. American Gods is no masterwork, but what it does it does well. For one thing, Gaiman’s love of storytelling is certainly present here on pretty much every page. The book is long – and some would say overlong, myself included – but when the words leap so easily off the page and into the reader’s imagination, I feel inclined to overlook this. One of Gaiman’s strengths has always been to have the fantastic elements exist in a very recognizable world. I think this is among the most important lessons any writer of fantasy should take home. The fantastic is never that fantastic if it takes place in a world already out of the ordinary. If we can readily recognize character traits and find that the dialogues ring true, we are more willing to follow any deviation of normality as something that could actually happen, or if it couldn’t happen, maybe it should.

As for the story Gaiman tells, it seems worth telling. It’s based on the old idea that a god is only as strong as the believers in the god – or the numbers of believers – and when the god is no longer remembered, the god dies or at best lives out his mythical life as a marginalized existence. What, then, if all the people from all over the world that at a point in history came to America also brought with them their gods? Can the old gods from the old world compete with the new gods of technology, money and fame? This set up leaves Gaiman plenty of room to spin a number of tales from his vast reservoir of mythological knowledge and imagination. But in the middle of this extraordinary element, Gaiman manages to create a quite rounded character in his protagonist, Shadow, who acts and reacts pretty much like a normal human being, and as I mentioned, this is where other writers in similar genres could take a cue from Gaiman.

For some reason I seem to mention Stephen King quite often in these posts, and this is no exception. Gaiman is, I think, the better, or more adventurous, writer of the two, but King is a close relative to this kind of novel; a bit more of a prude (Gaiman doesn’t shy away from human – and non-human – sexuality), a bit less inclined to do research (maybe Gaiman invents some of the mythologies of this book, but many seem to be founded on existing ones – or once existing), and quite a bit more American, but something about the tone of American Gods reminded me of much of King’s work. (Although I should note that King hasn’t written a good book in the last twenty years, with the exception of some non-fiction). American Gods is also a much better plotted book than most of Kings output, and impressively so, for it can’t have been easy to juggle all the different stories. (King’s excuse is that he doesn’t plot, just writes and sees where it takes him. I suspect this is either not entirely true, or he is very good at rewrites).

One could argue that some of the mysteries of this book are quite frankly not mysterious enough. The mystical man that calls himself Wednesday is easily recognized (even by the name itself) if one has even a fleeting knowledge of Norse Mythology. The murder mystery that is suddenly introduced toward the middle of the book is relatively easily solved as well. I won’t say more about this, so as not to spoil it for other readers, but I have a feeling that Gaiman was trying to reach as wide an audience as possible with the book, and while I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, I miss some of the ambiguities he proved capable of in, for example, Mister Punch.

All in all, though, American Gods is entertaining and at times it is more. I picked this book to have something to read at the beach, and I managed to stick to that intention until the last 150 pages of the book when I thought to hell with it and finished it in my good chair normally reserved for what I pompously and snobbishly would deem weightier (worthier?) literature in everything but physical weight. I guess that is a compliment to the novel, if very off hand.

Watchmen – Teaser Trailer

July 22, 2008

As most comics-connoiseurs will know, 1986 was a groundbreaking year for comics. Frank Miller’s monumental tract on Batman; The Dark Knight Returns, made “comic books” about super heroes acceptable for a grown up audience. I stress the term “super heroes”, because traditional comics had already for some time begun to grow in (at least a fraction of) the public’s consciousness as somewhat being able to occupy a more serious place in the pantheon of literature than earlier times had allocated it to. Will Eisner’s “A Contract With God”, released with little fanfare in 1978, was the first comic book to receive the moniker “Graphic Novel”. A few of these graphic novels were reviewed in the mainstream press. Typically they were in black and white and dealt with everyday concerns. No super heroes in sight. The Dark Knight Returns changed that. Men in tights were a serious business in tales that could be presented seriously.

As good as Miller’s work was, later in the year he had to see his four act story surpassed by the English writer Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It was then as it is now the most ambitious, and certainly most artistically successful, foray into the world of super heroes. Watchmen is complex, it is narratively in another ball park than pretty much anything the genre has ever tried. Time Magazine has declared it one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. This is no exaggeration. Every new reading of the work lets the reader see one bit more of the puzzle, one more thing he overlooked the previous time. It is not a book one will read once and have a full grasp of. Almost every panel gives information about what has happened before, what will happen. As such the narrative itself follows the overlying watchmetaphor, as if the author is turning the clock back and forth at will to finally end the tale in one cataclysmic and perhaps inescapable moment. The book definitely proved that super hero comics could be both realistic in its situations and imaginative in its scope and overall composition.

It starts as a murder mystery: Who killed the Comedian? Equally important, of course, is the why. Our guide in the investigation is the slightly psychopathic “detective” Rorschach. The story he doggedly pursues shows us a world that is almost like our own, if it hadn’t been for a small incident in New Mexico in August 1959, which would not have happened if it hadn’t been for a father’s change of heart August 7th 1945 because of what happened the day before, which I think was a Monday.

Each chapter consists of 32 immensely detailed pages, not one image superfluous, each panel giving more information upon closer inspection than the action it seemingly narrates. Of course the whole thing has twelve chapters, one for each hour of the watch. While the written narration takes the reader from the singular (the case of the dead Comedian) to the global and universal (the ultimate consequences of the discovery of atomic particles), the illustrations by the English comics artist Dave Gibbons keep it all rooted very much in reality, such as it can be showed in the medium. The very first image of the book is a smileyface, one eye of the face soiled by something that probably is the blood of the dead man. The last image, separated from the first by 384 pages, is of the same smileyface, now also soiled, in the same place but by something else. The face is round, like a clock, the stream of blood like an arm of a clock. We have reached the same time we started from. Quis custodiet ipsos custodies, the novel asks us finally, quoting Juvenal’s Satires: Who watches the watchmen? It turns out it is us, the readers. And as such we are given an obligation at the end of the book.

It is thus no surprise that Watchmen has long been deemed unfilmable. To even begin to do justice to the novel, it would seem any director would need at least 12 hours to tell the tale. Terry Gilliam tried for more than ten years to get the rights – and a studio to back him, but to no avail. Maybe that’s a pity, but I have trouble seeing how a filmatization could have been accomplished before the state of computer technology had reached the level of sophistication it has today. This does not mean that said technology is used rightly in most of the block busters, but at least it serves as a tool for telling different sorts of fictions than was imaginable on film just ten years ago. It can only be lamented that these days CGI (mostly) is being used to cover plot holes and a lack of story, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This, however, is a story for another day. The story of today is Watchmen and it’s premiere as a film in 2009.

Zack Snyder started his directing career by remaking George Romero’s classic anti-capitalist zombie movie “Dawn of the Dead”. In Snyder’s hands, most of the political and social criticism was left out in favour of faster action. The film, though, had significant entertainment value, and as debuts go, Snyder’s was far from the worst. He followed up Dawn… with another stalwart of popular culture, namely Frank Millers mythological testosterone fantasy of the battle of Thermopylae: 300. Here he showed that he knew how to translate a comic book relatively faithfully to film, which is no easy task, contrary to many a critic’s belief. Among the things that impressed me by that film was how he managed to utilize the same colour palette as Miller and make it work filmatically. It did not equally impress me that he bowed to commercial pressures by including female parts in what was meant as a purely male story. I thought Lena Headey’s role, for example, as Leonida’s wife, had little purpose in the film other than catering to fantasies of adolescent fan boys and instilling an emotional/sentimental tone in the film that I felt didn’t belong there.

The film was a success, though, and showed crossover potential in that it didn’t only sell to the comic buying audience. With the clout Snyder achieved he pressed on with the great white whale of comics: the uncatchable and unfilmable Watchmen. I myself was – and to a degree still is – sceptical as to his chances of achieving something close to the qualities of the comic. But maybe we should choose another yard pole to measure the film by. I do think it has the potential, at least, of being the first truly great comic book adaptation: and that could mean everything from a kind of Gone With the Wind of filmed comics to the Citizen Kane of same.

Snyder has hinted that he wants the film to be 3 hours long. It remains to be seen if the studio will allow for that, but I suspect that at least the DVD will be something to look forward to. We already have confirmation that the story of the black freighter – a tale within the tale in the comic – will appear on the DVD as a half hour long Anime-like story. As such we might be witnessing a new way of telling films, so to speak, in which the ordinary cinema premiere will serve more as an appetizer for the whole package. Of course, we already have examples, e.g. “Lord of the Rings”, with their extended editions, but Snyder has been more vocal than Peter Jackson in claiming that DVD will be the much preferred way of telling and seeing the entire story.

So why blog about this now? Well, three days ago, the teaser trailer for the film was released, and damn if I ain’t just a bit excited! These are the first moving images released from the film and it looks promising. Maybe it won’t instil the same kind of anticipation in those unfamiliar with the work, but I felt a definite tingle, yes, sir, I did. Click here to check it out in high def. (it takes a bit of time; best to pause it and let the file be fully uploaded before watching), and here for a quicker load, but lower resolution and smaller image (let it load to about 40% before starting). I expect we’ll see at least one more trailer for the film this year, and I guess that’ll tell us how much hope we can dare put into the end product which will premiere march 2009.